Tomorrow, July 11, the heads of state of NATO member countries will meet at the gleaming new NATO Headquarters on Boulevard Leopold in Brussels. At one level, this will be a summit like many others: There will be calls to spend more on defense, with solemn promises to do just that by those who have been falling short. There will be specific plans to improve readiness and to invest in infrastructure and mobility, as well as a reassertion of shared democratic values and principles. But at another level this NATO summit is about something much more fundamental: It could be the final opportunity for the allies not just to articulate but also to agree on a shared strategic assessment of deteriorating regional and global security and to start planning accordingly. Four years since the Russian seizure of Crimea, NATO is still in flux. Those who think that, come July 13, things will go back to business as usual had better think again.
The core issue that continues to hobble NATO is the misalignment of the national security priorities of its individual member-states with those which the alliance as a whole must agree on to remain effective. Today NATO’s member-states see their national security dilemmas differently, and the question remains to what extent they will be able and willing to merge these into an overarching strategic direction for the alliance. Despite the fact that Russia’s military seizure of Crimea shook NATO out of its post-Cold War complacency, the regional security optic remains the dominant variable across the alliance. Flank countries like Norway, the Baltic States, Poland, and Romania see Russia as the overarching threat; Germany and France recognize that Russia is threating the rule-based European order but do not seem to believe that they are threatened in the same way as the flank states. Moreover, ever since the MENA mass immigration wave first crashed onto Europe’s shores, Germany, Italy, and France have increasingly seen the south as the primary area of concern, with France and Italy looking deep into Africa, as far as the Sahel. There is also the tough question of how Turkey, the provider of the second largest standing military force in NATO, will set its priorities going forward, especially when it comes to its relations with Russia.
In turn, the United States—the only truly global power in NATO—is faced with increased security competition in Asia, in addition to growing instability in Europe and MENA and escalating competition for the High North and the Arctic. Consequently, Washington has put a premium on burden sharing, insisting that the allies not only spend on defense at the 2 percent of GDP level that they agreed to at the last two summits, but also that they field usable military capabilities and improve logistics. The United States also sees power projection and the global fight against terrorist networks as two important NATO tasks going forward, whereas for Europe the latter has a decidedly domestic focus. In short, almost three decades after the end of the Cold War, NATO is heading into yet another summit faced with the fundamental questions of what its shared threats and priorities are, and how to build an enduring consensus on the strategy and resource allocation needed to implement it.
This is not to say that nothing has been done since 2014; indeed, NATO’s Enhanced Forward Presence initiative, which put a rotational U.S. Brigade Combat Team in Poland and four rotational multinational battalions in the Baltic States, NATO’s Tailored Forward Presence which increased deployments in Romania and Bulgaria, the U.S. reinvestment in its military presence in Europe, the creation of the Atlantic Command headquarters in Norfolk, and the new Joint Support and Enabling Command (JSEC) in Germany are all important steps in strengthening NATO’s defenses in Europe. Still, at its core the issue is political: an apparent lack of strategic consensus across the alliance, reflected in NATO’s regionalized national security optics.
The question of equitable burden-sharing will not go away, and a calm assessment of the relative imbalance of allied contributions, both in terms of money and usable capabilities, needs to be factored in, if only for the simple reality that, since NATO’s inception, the United States has been by definition a primus inter pares among the allies, both in terms of its military contributions and the foundational strategic nuclear guarantee it continues to provide to its allies. Likewise, the ongoing argument over some allies’ reluctance to spend the agreed 2 percent of GDP on defense needs to be addressed head on. This is not just about euros and cents, but rather about the political importance of allies meeting their obligations. And so at the Brussels summit NATO will face a truly binary moment: Either the Americans and the Europeans will manage to see eye to eye on the continued critical importance of the alliance to Transatlantic stability and global security, or, a decade later, historians may see this summit as the beginning of NATO’s demise as the premier Western collective defense organization.
Perhaps the greatest irony of NATO’s predicament today is that, while the combined economic and, military resources (if deployed) of Europe and North America are simply unmatched, the politics needed to actualize this power potential continues to lag. Back in 1949 the level of geopolitical flux caused by communist expansion into Europe and Asia drove the argument for the creation of a collective defense pact to bind the United States and its allies, and the call was emphatically answered in the affirmative. Now, although for different reasons, the level of risk posed to Western security by China’s surging economic and military power, Russia’s geopolitical revisionism inside and outside Europe, and Iran’s increased competition for influence in the Middle East requires a similar collective commitment from the West. Today NATO’s problem is not a lack of resources; if anything, the key difference between 1949, when the North Atlantic Treaty was signed, and 2018 is how immensely wealthier Western democracies are today. Nonetheless, the West still seems unable to agree on how to respond to the profound and enduring geostrategic shifts we are confronting today across the globe, and how to adequately resource its militaries.
The upcoming NATO summit in Brussels will be important not so much for what it accomplishes in terms of practical decisions, programs, and plans, but insofar as it becomes the starting point for building a broader and badly needed Western global strategy for the future. The apparent irony of the current friction across the Atlantic, with the rising finger-pointing and recriminations, is that the coming era of state-on-state competition requires an ever-closer alignment of interests and priorities across the West. Confronted with the rise of China’s power and influence in the Pacific, the United States needs the alliance to maintain security and stability along Europe’s eastern and southern flanks, to ensure that in the coming years security competition in and around Europe remains suppressed to a level that makes a general war unlikely. In turn, Europe needs to ensure that the United States remains engaged in and committed to its security. No single European state can ultimately ensure Europe’s defense absent the United States. Not even the United Kingdom, Germany, and France combined could assume the role of principal security provider for the Continent; nor could any other combination do so. Europe’s problems encompass not only Russia but a growing panoply of challenges to the Continent’s security and stability, from MENA immigration flows and political destabilization to the faltering European Union project, accelerated by Brexit, to the risk that the Western Balkans will once more erupt into open conflict. The West faces challenges from Chinese economic power and Russia’s resurgent geostrategic assertiveness, and the political centers of even the largest and most-established democracies in Europe are shrinking amidst challenges from the extreme Left and Right.
The reality that Europe and the United States need each other when it comes to security and defense should be the baseline of Transatlantic dialogue going forward. Should Europe instead throw its lot in with the much-touted vision of “strategic autonomy” and fail to shore up NATO, in the end the entire Transatlantic community will be worse off for it. If some in Europe today think it is too tough to meet the defense spending targets needed to maintain NATO, they should consider that the kind of outlays needed to build an effective European defense and security system will be orders of magnitude greater in comparison. Lest the proponents of decoupling European defense from America and creating an autonomous European military forget, the pooling and sharing of resources in NATO, combined with the U.S. strategic guarantee to Europe, make NATO the best defense and security bargain bar none.
NATO’s greatest achievement during the Cold War was its ability to effectively deter the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact, in the process creating an indispensable security umbrella for Europe’s postwar recovery and the common European project. The best evidence for NATO’s continued utility is that, under its umbrella, Europe has enjoyed the longest period of peace in its history. In hindsight, such overwhelming success can be easily taken for granted—in fact, the post-Cold War generation in Europe and North America, having no memory of what is at stake, is now coming into its own. Still, it bears recalling how much work it took to make NATO into the most powerful collective defense alliance in history. Today NATO’s continued effectiveness requires another similar effort and commitment, as its obstacles are preeminently political.
Long established and highly bureaucratized international organizations do not simply disappear overnight; rather, they tend to linger on well past the point of addressing the needs of those who chartered them. Today there is a risk that NATO may follow this path, becoming first hollowed out and then marginalized, even while its bureaucracy soldiers on a while longer.